|The Missouri River. Click for photo credit.|
The series will consist of several parts:
Part 1. North Dakota
Part 2. Boom! Fracking and the Bakken Shale
Part 3. The Pipeline Project
Part 4. The Heart of the Matter: The Missouri River
Part 5. The Standing Rock Sioux
Part 6. The Legal Issues and the Protest
Part 7. Ethical Considerations and Conclusions
In the last three posts, I reviewed quite a bit of background information that set the stage for understanding the geography of North Dakota, the geologic conditions that led to the development of the North Dakota fracking fields, and the pipeline itself that is the center of the controversy. In today's post, I continue to explore another key background issue critical to understanding the context for the protest, the Missouri River. It truly is central to the many complex issues associated with the cultural and environmental issues in the region. In the following paragraphs, I review some of the basic facts and figures about the river, the prehistoric and historic cultural setting, and some of the important environmental challenges facing those who live within its drainage basin today. Please know that much has been written about the Missouri River and this post only provides a quick review from one person's perspective. The Missouri is one of the most important rivers in the world. I could start reading all that has been written about this river and still be reading decades from now. If there are some aspects of the river that interest you, please talk to your local librarian to find more resources on the topic.
|A biker riding on a bridge over the Missouri River near|
Washington, Missouri. Click for photo credit.
While many think the Mississippi is the longest river in North America, it isn't. It is the Missouri which extends from Western Montana 2300 miles to St. Louis. To put this length into perspective, a drive from Tampa, Florida to Los Angeles, California is about 2500 miles. Of course rivers bend much more than roads, so the 2300 miles is not a straight line. When the Missouri River is combined with the Mississippi River it becomes the fourth longest river in the world.
|The drainage basin of the Missouri River.|
Click for image credit.
|Precipitation map of the United States. Click for image credit.|
|Flooding on the Missouri River in 2011. Click for photo credit.|
The Missouri River is sometimes divided into an Upper Missouri River region and a Lower Missouri Region with Sioux City, Iowa as the dividing line. Below this point, the river is navigable for barge traffic and there are no dams. The slope of the channel is gentle and there are no significant rapids or falls. Above Sioux City, the slope of the stream is much greater. Hydroelectric engineers have taken advantage of areas of steepness in the channel to build fifteen hydroelectric dams and many more in tributaries.
|Monks Mound, Cahokia. Click for photo credit.|
Cahokia, which once had a population of about 40,000 in about 1200, was the most important, and largest, Native American city north of the Aztec world in Mexico. The culture, which anthropologists have named the Mississippian culture, had a tremendous influence throughout the Mississippi and Missouri River basins. While Cahokia was without a doubt the cultural capital, archaeological artifacts related to the culture and many settlements have been found from Florida to Wisconsin and from the Atlantic coast to the Rocky Mountains.
|A Mississippian site in Wisconsin (Aztalan). Click for photo credit.|
|Houses of the Plains Indians were designed|
for semi permanence. Click for photo credit.
Of course, contact with the Europeans changed everything.
By the time people of European origin made it to the region of the Missouri River basin, smallpox and other diseases decimated the Native American population. Some estimate that 90% of the population was lost, some due to the intentional introduction of disease. Early explorers in the region encountered communities that were clearly recently empty with some bodies unburied. The plagues, along with forced evacuations and concomitant violent conflict during the contact period caused considerable social, economic, and geographic stress on those who survived the early ravages of the new diseases.
|One Bull, a Sioux Chief. Click for photo credit.|
After American settlement and statehood, the region became distinctly agricultural in nature. Even its larger cities, such as Omaha and Sioux City, are built around agricultural processing. The Missouri River became a highway for moving food from the plains to the larger populations to the east. St. Louis, with it centrality, became a major city and a gateway for westward expansion. However, that all started to change late in the 20th century.
|The Gateway Arch which commemorates westward|
expansion from St. Louis. Click for photo credit.
|Prosper, North Dakota. Click for photo credit.|
Yet it is important to note that the development of the energy sector is not the only environmental issue facing the Missouri River basin. While water pollution is a perennial concern in most regions of the world and is an issue in the region, particularly pollution from animal holding lots, two broad environmental issues can limit the long-term sustainability of the region: soil erosion and depletion of the aquifers.
|An image from the famous Dust Bowl of the 1930's in the Great|
Plains. Click for photo credit.
|Irrigated circular fields in Nebraska. Click for photo credit.|
As a whole, the Missouri River drainage basin is complex. It has a distinct history, a dynamic environment, and a challenging future. When considering the issues associated with Dakota Access Pipeline, it is important have a broad geographic and historical context.
Coming up next, a look at the Standing Rock Sioux.
1. Everyone lives in a drainage basin. What is yours? What is the area of your drainage basin?
2. Compare and contrast the climate of Bismark, North Dakota with that of St. Louis (Chesterfield), Missouri.
3. Do some research on the Internet and find examples of prehistoric artifacts from the Mississippian culture near St. Louis and the prehistoric Plains Indians of the Great Plains. Describe their differences and similarities. What can you infer about the differences in their lifestyles from the artifacts?
4. Take a look at the maps in this document. Based on the maps, what is unique about the Great Plains compared to the rest of the United States?
5. Read this article from Scientific American about the Ogallala Aquifer. What steps can we take to ensure the long-term sustainability of the aquifer and of agriculture in the plains?
Note, if you like this series, you may like this textbook, Introduction to Sustainability available from Wiley.